Seldom has a presidential candidate faced such long odds. John McCain has repeatedly allied himself with the most unpopular president since the history of modern polling. He has embraced the most unpopular war since <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 />Vietnam. The U.S. economy continues its downward slide. Polls show generic Democratic candidates leading by double digits at all levels of government. <?xml:namespace prefix = o />
And those are just the beginning of McCain’s problems. He is caught between a rock and a hard place in the core narrative about what he stands for. Moderates are turned off every time he takes a right turn to bow to a base whose ideology has proven destructive, while the GOP base is distinctly unenthusiastic about a candidate they suspect is really not one of them. Add to the mix an extraordinarily charismatic candidate running against an extraordinarily uncharismatic one, and it’s no surprise that Republicans are openly expressing angst.
With all that stacked against him, the only road that could take McCain to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is the low road, one of the few pieces of infrastructure left in good repair by President Bush. His father paved it against Michael Dukakis, George W. Bush repaved it running against John Kerry, and the GOP repainted the dotted line in now-Senator Bob Corker’s 2006 contest with Harold Ford. The path to success for McCain is to make the election a referendum on his opponent, by working in silent concert with 527 groups and media outlets such as Fox News to pursue character assassination, guilt by association, and, most of all, the effort to paint Obama as different, foreign, unlike “us,” and dangerous (and did I mention that he’s black?).
Over the last several weeks, McCain has been running “The American President,” an ad with all the trappings of positivity, but that actually sets the stage for all future attacks. The attacks will not come from McCain. They will come from the momentarity dormant 527s behind them, giving McCain plausible deniability while they make the presidential contest about Barack Obama’s differentness and activate unconscious racial sentiments that Republicans have preyed upon for four decades.
The name of McCain’s ad itself suggests both its positive message and its more insidious subtext: What other kind of President is there? An un-American President, someone who is not really “one of us”? An anti-American President? Or perhaps just an African-American President. Bob Corker ran an entire campaign against a man born and raised in Memphis (Harold Ford, Jr.) with the premise, “Who’s the real Tennesseean?” (and did I mention that he’s black?). McCain was apparently so impressed with the race-baiting “Harold, Call Me” ad that he hired the man who produced it to run his campaign (although he left when McCain's bus seemed to have run out of gas before it eventually refueled in Iowa and New Hampshire).
So what is the message of “The American President”? The announcer asks, “What must a president believe about us?” This seems innocuous enough, until you realize that it implicitly sets Obama up as “not one of us” and lays the ground for the RNC and the 527s to remind Americans of Obama’s “elitist” comments about average Americans, which McCain is already riffing on in stump speeches, and Michelle Obama’s gaffe about being really proud of her country “for the first time,” to which Cindy McCain responded that she has always been proud of her country. (Apparently her country’s refusal to let black people vote for a century after the Civil War, including during her lifetime, never touched her sense of national pride.)
The announcer goes on, “And what must we believe about that president? What does he think? Where has he been? Has he walked the walk?” Again, innocuous enough, but it plays on the question of what Obama must have been thinking in the (did I say black?) pews all those years while listening to Reverend Wright, or what he must have learned in the Muslim schools he allegedly attended in Indonesia. The ad ends, “John McCain: The American President Americans have been waiting for.” Syntactically, that’s an oddly redundant conclusion. Why not, “John McCain: The President Americans have been waiting for?” Because, of course, that second rendering would not imply that his opponent is not American.
Under other circumstances, such simple turns of phrase might mean little. But these aren’t other circumstances. Barack Obama has been the target of a concerted smear campaign that tells a consistent story: that he is a Muslim, that he attended an anti-American madrassa as a child, that he refuses to put his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance, that he took his oath of office to the Senate with his hand on the Koran, and that he hates Israel. Beginning in late 2006, conservative talk show hosts and commentators like Ann Coulter were calling him "B. Hussein Obama," images on the Internet were morphing Obama into Osama, and commentators were raising questions about his patriotism.
These subterranean messages took a substantial toll. When I was doing focus groups with swing voters in the early winter, nearly half of every group we met with would either assert confidently or wonder aloud whether Obama was a Muslim or didn’t believe in the Pledge of Allegiance.
But this was just the beginning. With his patriotism and “us-ness” in question, the theme moved from “different” directly to “black” (with the unfortunate complicity of Hillary Clinton’s campaign). Already this month, a Fox News host asked if Barack and Michelle Obama shared a “terrorist fist jab”; and the same network also referred to Michelle as Barack’s “baby mama.” The National Review, among others, made the unprecedented call for Obama to release his birth certificate (which he did). The false story of his wife using the term “whitey” spread, as did a photo album displaying the future “first family,” putting together all of Obama’s African relatives in an attempt to make him look as foreign as possible while also suggesting that some of his relatives were terrorists.
The pattern is clear. At its broadest, the goal is to portray Obama as “them, not us.” And if anyone does not remember the term “Black Muslim,” with all its associations to ’60s domestic terrorism (by the way, did I mention his connection to the Weather Underground, and the position attributed to him by John McCain that as president he would meet with terrorists?), it is unconsciously active in all of our minds now. We should expect a demonization of Michelle Obama that makes the Republican branding of Hillary Clinton in the 1990s pale. There will likely be a spate of YouTube ads and once-played television ads that will receive tremendous media coverage aimed at consciously raising questions about the ads while unconsciously reinforcing questions about Barack Obama.
For any who wonder how successful this technique can be, my colleague Joel Weinberger and I recently ran a study for CNN testing the conscious and unconscious impact of three attack ads. The results were clear: The conscious and unconscious impact of an attack ad can be diametrically opposed. For example, just as exit polls showed that more than half of voters in Ohio, where she ran it, said she’d run an unfair campaign against Obama but still handed her a substantial victory, viewers of Hillary’s “3 A.M.” ad decried it and claimed that it made them think less of Hillary--but the words most strongly activated unconsciously about Obama by the ad were weak, Muslim, terrorist, and lightweight.
We are poised for the nastiest, most racist presidential contest in modern American history. Why? Because John McCain can’t win any other way.
Is there an antidote? Yes, and it’s fourfold, dictated as much by our psychology as our politics:
(1) Do not let attacks fester, where they can affect voters’ unconscious associations and feelings toward a candidate long after they learn that the initial information was untrue.
(2) Create a counter-narrative about who Barack Obama is that makes clear that he is “us,” not “them,” and that his story is our story. (His first general-election ad appears to be an effort to do just that.)
(3) Strike hard at the character of those who would attack a man’s patriotism, wife, faith, and race, so that the issue is their character, not his.
(4) Resist the temptations to run away from talking honestly about race or to speak about issues related to race euphemistically. Our better angels on race are our conscious values. The more Barack Obama can fight this battle on the conscious battlefield, where virtually all Americans oppose racial discrimination, the more he will win the hearts and minds of the American people, and the more they will feel they know, trust, and can identify with him. The more Republicans succeed in fighting a subterranean racial insurgency, the greater their chances of beating the odds in November.
Drew Westen is Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University and author of The Political Brain.
By Drew Westen